The Fantastic Count Basie
William "Bill" Basie. The Count. The little man with the big band sound. Count Basie's legendary status in jazz is no accident. He quite simply was the greatest of the big band leaders. Ellington, Goodman, the Dorseys, all had good big bands, and each was spectacular in its own right, but none had the incomparable grace that Basie lent to his big bands over the years.
Count Basie got his start in Kansas City in the late 1920s playing Mississippi blues influenced jazz with Walter Page's Blue Devils. Having come from New Jersey playing in a vaudeville/jazz act, Basie was anxious to play with a band like the Blue Devil's who were considered at the time to be one of the best in the midwest. However, Basie first had to overcome a serious battle with spinal meningitis.
After his recovery he was forced to take work accompanying silent pictures -- a talent he learned from one of his early mentors Fats Waller. In 1928 Basie got his chance to play with Walter Page and began touring with the Blue Devils. Soon though, Basie jumped ship and went back to Kansas City where speakeasies, gin joints and wild jazz were everywhere.
"Oh my, marvelous
town, Kansas City. Clubs, clubs, clubs. I mean that
It was from the ashes of the Moten Orchestra and the Blue Devils that Basie first formed his own big band in the early thirties. Basie had played in an orchestra that over time had come to be comprised of numerous members of both Walter Page's Blue Devil's and Bennie Moten's Orchestra. In 1933 Moten split Kansas City and band members elected Basie to lead the orchestra. They opened for a new Kansas City club called the Cherry Blossom under the name Coun Basie and his Cherry Blossom Orchestra. Eventually Basie organized another band under the title of Count Basie and his Barons of Rhythm. Throughout, the rhthym section of Jo Jones on drums, Walter Page on bass, and Basie on piano stayed together, beginning one of the legendary combinations of early jazz.
Joining the band at this time was the incredible young saxophonist Lester Young, just in time for their radio broadcasts in 1935. Those broadcasts led to the national discovery of Caoun Basie and a recording invitation in 1936. Basie knowing next to nothing about recording contracts agreed to record12 records a year for Decca records for $750 a year out right for the whole band. No royalties.
By the time the band toured Chicago and New York in late 1936 it was up to thirteen members, now including tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans who had a heated on-stage rivalry with Lester Young. In 1937 in New York the Basie big band picked up its longest tenured member, guitarist Freddie Green who played with the band even after Basie was gone, right up until the time of his own death in 1987.
Basie spent a night barhopping through Harlem and met Billie Holliday.
Instantly he fell in love with her voice. Soon Holliday began to sing with
the band, staying long enough for a legendary run at the Harlem Appollo
Over the years
Basie's bands were always filled with swinging soloists.
Into the late
forties and early fifties Basie worked with much smaller bands and his
wave of popularity seemed to ebb. But in the late 1950s Basie simply reincarnated
the Basie big band and began to have a significant impact on the world
of jazz once again. From the swingin' devil may care sounds that had so
infused Basie's early recordings he moved towards the swinging, slightly
rocking, cool and hip jazz that was tearing up the clubs of the 1950s and
60s jetset. Billed as The Atomic Band, Basie's group once again was
at the forefront of American jazz, swinging and playing harder than
anyone else. They backed some of the great singers of the day such as Frank
Sinatra, Mel Torme and Sammy Davis Jr. and became permenant fixtures in